Arsenal surrender and Nottingham Forest safety finally confirmed on an evening without jeopardy
Manchester City are the champions and Nottingham Forest have survived relegation. This wasn’t the result Arsenal wanted from their trip to The City Ground.
Of course, we all knew that it was almost certainly going to end this way. Possibly not here at The City Ground, on an evening when a Nottingham Forest team with business of their own put 10 men behind the ball and invited Arsenal to do their worst after having taken an early lead. But the pattern has been clear: Manchester City have chipped and chipped, while Arsenal have slipped and slipped.
If Arsenal supporters were looking for a crumb of consolation from a dispiriting evening, at least they can reflect that City eventually won the league title in perhaps the least satisfying way possible, with results elsewhere going their way and without having to do so much as kicking a ball themselves, on a day when they weren’t even playing.
This is obviously cold comfort when you can still feel the chilling sting of defeat, and it’s entirely natural that Arsenal supporters should be disappointed as the mathematical certainly of a fifth Manchester City league title in six years finalises itself.
Arsenal have made huge progress this season, beyond what anybody expected of them following their slump towards the end of their last campaign. There have been considerably more positives to take than negatives, and there remains a feeling that this doesn’t have to be a one-off if they can continue to invest in greater depth to their squad over the course of the summer.
But when you’ve spent the whole of the season thinking, “This couldn’t be our year? Could it? COULD IT?”, while witnessing plenty of evidence on a near-weekly basis that perhaps it could, being philosophical about it all can wait for another day when the reality finally catches up. This is an evening for remembering that life is not fair, money almost always wins, and that we live in a Godless and cruel universe in which there are no guarantees that good luck will come to even out the bad, and in which the good guys certainly don’t always win.
And there may not be many worse places in the Premier League to visit at this point in the season than The City Ground when Nottingham Forest have something to play for. Considering that they had to rebuild their entire first-team squad just last summer and the conventional prognosis for any newly-promoted club in this division, Forest’s Premier League survival with a game to spare is a not inconsiderable achievement.
It was always going to be the case that the success of the unusual path the club has taken since promotion could only ever be gauged by whether Forest ended this season above or below that dotted line near the bottom of the table. Well we have an answer to that question now.
The boldest decision that Forest made all season was to keep Steve Cooper in his position, even when losses were mounting up and pressure was starting to build. There seemed to be an awareness on the part of the club that they were at least partially responsible for their position, and that consequently it would be better to stick with the head coach that had been with them throughout the summer rather than bringing in someone else to try and make sense of a smorgasbord of fancy new signings.
This game was an object lesson in how they’ve come to survive in the first place. The only goal came about as a result of a careless pass that was heavily punished. Martin Odegaard has been outstanding for Arsenal this season, among their very best players, but on this occasion his stray pass set Forest’s perpetual motion machine Morgan Gibbs-White free in the middle of the pitch. Gibbs-White surged through and then released Taiwo Awoniyi, who collided with Gabriel just as he came to take his shot, only to it deflect past Aaron Ramsdale and in.
Arsenal dominated possession for much of the rest of the game, but Forest held their own comfortably – for all the pressure, it seldom felt as though Arsenal were close to breaking them down – and created a handful of decent chances of their own on the break. Arsenal finished the game having had 80% of the ball, but just three shots on target all evening.
In the end, the slick, flowing football that had defined them for so much of the season was missing again, and highly-motivated opposition had plenty enough about them to keep them at bay.
Forest may well have something to build upon this summer. Keylor Navas was an inspirational signing in January. His loan is up in the summer, but Forest will surely be desperate to hang onto him. Gibbs-White cost a lot of money, but his energy and vision have gone a long way towards ensuring survival. Brennan Johnson has been the heart and soul of the team, the connecting link that won promotion in the first place.
And there’s Awoniyi. With nine in the Premier League, he may not have been a great scorer of goals this season, but he has certainly been a scorer of important ones. There have been winners against West Ham and Liverpool, two in the 4-3 win against Southampton and the 2-2 draw at Chelsea, and now the winner against Arsenal. Other players will end the season having scored considerably more than him. Few will end it having scored quite so many important goals. It’s not unreasonable to conclude that they ultimately kept Nottingham Forest up.
Arsenal are left to reflect upon what might have been. Is it ‘bottling’ or ‘choking’, to lose a lead of the size that they had at the top of the Premier League? Or have the last three months or so really just been a matter of everything just returning to its mean? The answer to that question almost certainly depends on who you support. But there can be little doubting the extent to which they’ve improved this season, or that the group of young players Mikel Arteta has assembled has the potential to go further than they have this season. Sure enough, Manchester City were too much this time, but this doesn’t have to be the end of the story.
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